Monday, October 30, 2006

Whitsunday Islands

One of the things I was least looking forward to on the trip to Australia was sailing on the Whitsunday Islands. I was seriously contemplating skipping it. Boats and me don't mix. I've fallen out of enough forms of water transport to know that my sea legs are a little shaky, plus I tend to get sea sick on those that I managed to stay in. Still, friends of mine insisted that the Whitsunday Islands were the highlight of their trip to Australia and everyone else on the Oz Experience was booked on one boat or another so I decided I'd give it a go.

I wanted to go on one of the old slow wooden tall ships and I certainly didn't want on one of the party boats so that really left two boats. The nicest looking of them was a boat called Alexander Stewart so that was the one I booked onto. After another early start (I now get up earlier in Australia than I do in Ireland) at 6:30am I was checked out of the hostel, luggage stored, breakfast eaten and down at the marina by 8am. The Alexander Stewart was moored just beside us and looked very small to hold 18 passenger and 3 crew for 3 days. Still once we got on board we got our cabins and were shown around I figured that despite looking small it was actually plenty big for me. The cabins were a little small for some people and there were two people in each, either in a double for the couples/close friends or a twin with tiny bunk beds. I was travelling alone so got into a twin and my own bunk. There wasn't much room and certainly no storage space but I don't mind confined spaces as much as some others on the boat so I was happy enough.

The boat was nice and relaxed and while there were several couples on the boat there were single people as well and everyone chatted to everyone else. There were 3 crew members, Craig the skipper, who seemed relaxed and nothing seemed to fluster him. Jimmy the deck hand/snorkel instructor/guide/and the closest thing I've seen to a sea monkey with his ability to leap around the boat with a confidence and balance that amazed the passengers. Caz was the cook and had the unenviable task of providing breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for 21 people in a tiny galley, but she managed it very well and kept everyone happy.

As we sailed to our first destination we saw some whales breaching just off our starboard side. They didn't jump out of the water, but as a free bonus whale watching trip it was pretty cool. Our first stop was at Whitehaven Beach where we went on a bush walk to a lookout over the nearly deserted beach. On the way we passed a green tree ant nest and Jimmy stopped to pick up the ants by their heads and let us all lick their behinds. Green tree ants have a very strong lime taste which surprised everyone who tasted them. Several minutes later I was still tasting lime. Whitehaven Beach itself is a picture postcard with turquoise water, white sand and rain forests right down to the edge of the beach. It is easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and Jimmy told us it is the most photographed beach in the world. I could see why but I suspected that Bondi Beach in Sydney may have a pretty good claim to the title as well, it's no where near as pretty but much more famous. After spending a few hours on the beach itself, which was almost deserted apart from us and maybe 10 other people, we headed back to the boat where we had dinner, watched the stars and had a couple of glasses of wine. I had rather stupidly had followed the advice of the Oz Experience driver and bought 2 boxes of wine which totaled 9 litres. At my current rate of consumption I figure the last litre will be consumed somewhere after Cairns. The boat was moored in an inlet which was so calm you couldn't feel the waves.

The next morning Jimmy called us all out of bed at 7am and we headed over to an island to see some Aborigine cave paintings. They look like nets, no one really knows what they mean but some people think they are burial nets and that the Aborigines buried their dead by lowering them in nets into nearby caves. After that we spent the rest of the day snorkeling travelling to two different beaches from which we could see coral reefs and thousands of fish. It is currently box jelly fish season so we all had to wear stinger suits when in the water. They are a bit like thin wet suits, made of lycra, covering the arms legs and torso. No one wants to get stung by a jelly fish so there were no complaints about wearing lycra body suits. Among the fish highlights were a giant clam, some large mauri wrasse fish and a stingray. There was of course thousands of other fish and lots of coral. That night we moored in more open water beside a sand spur so the night was a more choppy but it was still easy to sleep.

The next day was the third and final one so we started at 7am with a snorkel before breakfast off the sand spur, which provided some of the clearest water and the best coral. We had been warned to not slap the coral with our fins as it could do a lot of damage to the coral. In some places it looked so shallow that I had to turn around and swim away from it because swimming over it would have been too risky. After breakfast we headed to another beach for more snorkeling but the visibility there was poor so we all went back to the boat early. The rest of the day was spent sailing back to Airlie beach and sunbathing. At one stage a pod of dolphins showed up and swam with the boat for about 5 minutes, jumping out of the water just under the bow of the ship. This was the highlight of the trip for some people. I also got a chance to drive the boat for a few minutes in open water. It may have seemed very brave on the part of the crew, but there wasn't much around that I could hit and so long as I kept the bow pointing in the right direction nothing bad could happen. Still it was fun.

We got back to Airlie Beach at about 3pm and I am pleased to say I made the whole trip without once getting or even feeling sea sick. Granted I had loaded up on sea sickness tablets before leaving so I was pretty safe. That night some of the passengers and the skipper Craig went out for food and drinks. The night ended in a club called Paddy Shennanigans sometime after 1pm.

I have to say that despite my earlier worries about the trip sailing on the Whitsunday islands has been the highlight of the trip so far. It is really beautiful and relaxing and calm and I cant imagine many things better than it.

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